We have been working on and off with a large firm, let’s call them CBGB, on several complex and culturally fascinating projects. And before I get to the point of my post, let me be clear that the many principals and associates at the firm have gone out of their way to be generous, honest, and friendly to our team and me. But like many large firms, after you penetrate the many layers of management cloud cover to the productive surface of the firm, the working culture seems dysfunctional.
The dysfunctionality has many manifestations, but within the context of my developing argument, the most germane characteristic is the way that younger people in the firm attempt to participate as idea-generators on a project. At CBGB, they come in two flavors. The first are “the good soldiers”. They take unquestioning direction from the higher ups and are impressively productive in generating work. The second group, about equal in number, make a constant effort to insert their own ideas into the process, but awkwardly and with a total disregard for any larger agenda or conceptual framework that may be emerging. In my experience, the first group is too passive, either because they have been trained to respect the militaristic hierarchy implied by the multi-tiered titles or because of their cultural background (many in this group are not from the US). The second group on the other hand, exhibit authorship and self-esteem “issues” that thwarts their ability to work opportunistically within a group by leveraging emerging ideas, hunches, and the insights of others. They self-consciously seek validation by proposing alternative proposals, but without realizing that their suggestions come across as contrarian and/or passive-aggressive.
Given the current debate among the faculty at Yale about the relative merits of group versus individual work in the design studio, perhaps a stronger connections should be made between the social patterns exhibited by young designers in large offices and their experiences in school. It is my hunch, that the seeds of the problem at CBGB can be found in the structure, social patterns, and reward system of the traditional design studio where highly personalized and unique solutions are championed over design proposals that result from students generously riffing off of each others’ ideas. What is needed instead is a pedagogical framework where assertiveness finds its role and value within a group dynamic.
This issue, long simmering in studio culture and occasionally poked at by academics, has been exacerbated by the pluralism of contemporary practice and the Big Idea focus of student design proposals in today’s post-theory architecture programs. The unfortunate consequence is that the initial “idea” (typically manifested as a simplistic proto-architectonic diagram) is privileged over the execution of the idea as an architectonic proposal. The consequence of this are two kinds of projects, the first are the very diagrammatic Dutch-influenced proposals which, while organizationally compelling, are mostly left in a state of low-risk architectural commitment. On the other hand, there are the instructors and students, who, bypass the step of organizational planning, in their hurry to get to the pleasures of computer-generated formal investigations.
Beyond the specific pedagogy and content-focus of the Yale Urbanism studio, we are using our section to openly discuss these issues and to test alternative approaches to balancing group and individual work. As an operating principle, individual work will only occur after several strong ideas, generated in collaborative white board discussions, are discussed, refined, and distributed to the group. In truth, individual effort and commitment is most necessary in when working out the architectonic specifics and not generating the initial ideas. We are hoping to use the design studio to fine-tune the balance between collaboration and individual initiative to make design more pleasurable, rewarding, and creatively productive.
The dark side of collaboration and the trap of the Big Idea: 12 Angry Men
The stakes are (too) high because multivalent issues need to be weighed to determine a definitive “yes’ or “no” outcome, the opposite of a productive design process where thousands of definitive decisions are made to create an environment with richly multivalent characteristics.